“Spring has always been my favorite time of year, April my favorite month, so it was appropriate that my story should begin on April 1, 1921, in a small frame house at 1109 Strong Avenue in Greenwood, Mississippi.
“I am sure it must have been a nice day. April days in Mississippi are nearly always nice, and I am sure the sun must have shown brightly on me that day because I have been blessed with a lifetime of happy wonderful memories, some of which I can share with my children and grandchildren.”
Reader, there you have Sara Evans Criss in a tidy nutshell, written as she approached her eighth decade. Relentlessly, often irrationally, optimistic…..a true believer that all the gods in all the heavens had smiled on her from the day she popped out in that “small frame house” on Strong Avenue. Had you asked her if there was ever a more enchanting town in which to be born or a more comforting and adventurous street on which to grow up or a warmer, more nurturing family to nestle in, she would have given you that “Why in the world would you ask me that?” gaze and shaken her head, “No, of course not.” It was the best of times, in her mind, with the best of people always around her and life just an unlimited Easter basket packed with all the sweet treats of the season and the century. She burst into life as an April Fool, ever finding the funny twist to the tale, but she was never anyone’s patsy.
Strong Avenue in 1921 was a half-mile or so of cinder sprinkled over packed dirt, its blocks quickly filling with solid middle-class homes whose owners generally paid their mortgages with money gleaned in some fashion from cotton. Greenwood’s catbird-seat location at the edge of the verdant Mississippi Delta, served by no less than three rivers and two railroads, had transformed it from a rickety shantytown of saloons and sheds into the state’s premier cotton market. By 1921, a quarter-century of agricultural and political power had sprinkled the town with ornate mansions and Neoclassic public buildings. River Road, snaking along the track of the Yazoo, was still the ultimate site for the big houses of the big men, and Strong Avenue was one step south of that mecca in geography and prestige. Its homes were solid but just a tad less showy than River Road….Strong homes built for the men who ran the cotton fibers through their sensitive fingers in the downtown factors’ offices or crushed the leftover seeds into oil, rather than those who owned the dark dirt where it was grown or who perched behind the polished bank desks and controlled the vast fortunes that flowed out of those fields.
Sara’s father, Howard McTyiere Evans, was a young man swiftly climbing one of those “secondary” ladders in the Cotton Kingdom. Within a year of her birth, he would be installed as the youngest manager in Proctor and Gamble’s system of “Buckeye” cottonseed oil mills, and Sara’s life, along with her mother’s and her two older sisters’, would take a short detour from Strong Avenue. The adventure was just beginning.